Person in the news

February 20, 2015 5:56 pm

Emmanuel Macron, French economy minister

Anne-Sylvaine Chassany

The politician is rewriting the rule book for country’s socialism, writes Anne-Sylvaine Chassany

 
Joe Cummings illustration
 
 
Emmanuel Macron’s political baptism of fire this week was a setback at home but a victory abroad.
 
France’s rookie (he is 37) economy minister failed to win enough parliamentary support to pass a bill that carries his name — L a loi Macron. With its range of liberalising measures, including more Sunday opening for shops, Macron’s law has became the most potent signal of President François Hollande’s commitment to reforming the eurozone’s second-largest economy.
 
Affable and impeccably turned out, Mr Macron sat in parliament for 193 hours over four weeks in an attempt to secure a majority. It was not enough to convince hardliners in his own socialist camp. On Tuesday, moments before the vote on the bill, with tension running high in a packed National Assembly, the usually calm Mr Macron lashed out at those in his party “who don’t want to change the country and who think everything is fine”. There was a chorus of boos as more than a dozen socialists refused to vote with their party.
 
The vote was called off at the last moment: Manuel Valls, the prime minister, was not willing to take a chance on the bill failing to pass just a week before a decision from the European Commission on whether to censure Paris for delaying (again) meeting a target for reducing its budget deficit. The package of reforms in the bill were seen as key to persuading the EU to act leniently towards France.

Mr Valls instead got the president’s permission to use a controversial clause, last used nine years ago, in the French constitution that allows the government to override parliament and pass a bill without a vote. “I was angry,” Mr Macron told the FT. “But it’s our duty to pass this law. The French wanted it, international investors were waiting for it, and so were our European partners who expect us to modernise our economy.” Six months into the job, the economy minister has seen France plunged into political turmoil because of a bill whose flagship measure gives mayors the power to let shops trade on 12 Sundays a year, rather than five, and which opens up parts of the French economy, such as intercity coach services and legal professions, to more competition.

Fierce opposition to this rather modest law reveals France’s deep divide and soul-searching over how to pull itself out of stagnation without eroding its generous social model.

Last month, speaking at a gathering of economists, Mr Macron criticised the “traditional school of thought, which is to throw more public money into the system, to create more state-aided jobs, or even put a ceiling to success”. Expanding on the theme, he told the FT: “The left I dream about is one that gives individuals the means to build their autonomy at each critical step of their lives. I believe in equal opportunities.”

But the government’s youngest minister sounds too rightist for many in his party. His four-year-stint as a Rothschild banker does not help — many on the left think finance is the enemy.

While at Rothschild, he engineered the $11.9bn sale of Pfizer’s baby food business to Nestlé — that deal alone made him a millionaire. He had met Nestlé’s chairman, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, while working for a commission set up by then president Nicolas Sarkozy and headed by Jacques Attali, a left-leaning economist, to make recommendations on growth.

An executive at Rothschild remembers Mr Macron as someone with “a brilliant mind, who would not sleep much, knows how to listen and absorb expertise from others”. When he arrived, he did not know much about mergers and acquisitions but was a fast learner, the executive said. “He can look relaxed on the surface, but there’s a lot of preparation and work beneath.”

Mr Macron has an impressive academic background. He was brought up in a leftwing home in the northern French city of Amiens, where his parents were doctors. He attended a local Catholic school — his future wife, Brigitte, was a teacher there at the time. He finished his studies at Henri-IV, one of Paris’s most selective state schools. After graduating from the prestigious SciencesPo in the capital, he became an assistant to the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur. Mr Macron later earned a masters degree for his work on Machiavelli.

In 2002 he left academia — he says he “preferred action to the prospect of a quiet academic life” and was selected for the Ecole nationale d’administration, the training ground for elite French civil servants.

Mr Macron first met Mr Hollande in 2007, at a dinner party hosted by Mr Attali. The two became friends, and the president has supported Mr Macron through awkward incidents that show up his inexperience. Mr Macron had to apologise, for example, after referring to the plight of “illiterate” workers in a factory he had visited in Brittany.

The “Macron law” has been damaging for its creator: on Thursday, the government survived a no-confidence vote triggered by the decision to bypass parliament. The bigger picture, though, is “mission accomplished” — the French government can go ahead with reforms which are the price for EU leniency on missed deficit targets.
 
Emmanuel Macron has become the face of a younger, reforming France — and is optimistic that things will take a turn for the better. The forward-thinking left he is dreaming about is, he believes, “the majority within the socialist party”. There is nothing that a few hardliners “only interested in their political agenda”, can do to change that.


This article has been altered since original publication to reflect the fact that Mr Valls, rather than Mr Macron got the president’s permission to override parliament and pass a bill without voting.

The writer is the FT’s Paris bureau chief

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